If a person is lost in the wilderness, they have two options. They can search for civilization, or they could make themselves easy to spot by building a fire or writing HELP in big letters. For scientists interested in the question of whether intelligent aliens exist, the options are much the same.
For over 70 years, astronomers have been scanning for radio or optical signals from other civilizations in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, called SETI. Most scientists are confident that life exists on many of the 300 million potentially habitable worlds in the Milky Way galaxy.
Astronomers also think there is a decent chance some life forms have developed intelligence and technology. But no signals from another civilization have ever been detected, a mystery that is called “The Great Silence.”
While SETI has long been a part of mainstream science, METI, or messaging extraterrestrial intelligence, has been less common.
I’m a professor of astronomy who has written extensively about the search for life in the universe. I also serve on the advisory council for a nonprofit research organization that’s designing messages to send to extraterrestrial civilizations.
In the coming months, two teams of astronomers are going to send messages into space in an attempt to communicate with any intelligent aliens who may be out there listening.
These efforts are like building a big bonfire in the woods and hoping someone finds you. But some people question whether it is wise to do this at all.
The Pioneer 10 spacecraft carries this plaque, which describes some basic information about humans and the Earth. Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Linda Salzman Sagan, NASA Ames Research Center via WikimediaCommons
The history of METI
Early attempts to contact life off Earth were quixotic messages in a bottle.
In 1972, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 spacecraft toward Jupiter carrying a plaque with a line drawing of a man and a woman and symbols to show where the craft originated. In 1977, NASA followed this up with the famous Golden Record attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
These spacecraft – as well as their twins, Pioneer 11 and Voyager 2 – have now all travelled well past the orbits of the outer planets. But in the immensity of space, the odds that these or any other physical objects will be found are fantastically minuscule.
Electromagnetic radiation is a much more effective beacon.
Astronomers beamed the first radio message designed for alien ears from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in 1974. The series of 1s and 0s was designed to convey simple information about humanity and biology and was sent toward the globular cluster M13. Since M13 is 25,000 light-years away, you shouldn’t hold your breath for a reply.
In addition to these purposeful attempts at sending a message to aliens, wayward signals from television and radio broadcasts have been leaking into space for nearly a century. This ever-expanding bubble of earthly babble has already reached millions of stars.
But there is a big difference between a focused blast of radio waves from a giant telescope and diffuse leakage – the weak signal from a show like “I Love Lucy” fades below the hum of radiation left over from the Big Bang soon after it leaves the solar system.
Sending new messages
Nearly half a century after the Arecibo message, two international teams of astronomers are planning new attempts at alien communication. One is using a giant new radio telescope, and the other is choosing a compelling new target.
One of these new messages will be sent from the world’s largest radio telescope, in China, sometime in 2023. The telescope, with a 1,640-foot (500-meter) diameter, will beam a series of radio pulses over a broad swath of sky. These on-off pulses are like the 1s and 0s of digital information.
The message is called “The Beacon in the Galaxy” and includes prime numbers and mathematical operators, the biochemistry of life, human forms, the Earth’s location and a time stamp.
The team is sending the message toward a group of millions of stars near the center of the Milky Way galaxy, about 10,000 to 20,000 light-years from Earth. While this maximizes the pool of potential aliens, it means it will be tens of thousands of years before Earth may get a reply.
The other attempt is targeting only a single star, but with the potential for a much quicker reply. On Oct. 4, 2022, a team from the Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station in England will beam a message toward the star TRAPPIST-1.
This star has seven planets, three of which are Earth-like worlds in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” – meaning they could be home to liquid and potentially life, too. TRAPPIST-1 is just 39 light-years away, so it could take as few as 78 years for intelligent life to receive the message and Earth to get the reply.
The prospect of alien contact is ripe with ethical questions, and METI is no exception.
The first is: Who speaks for Earth? In the absence of any international consultation with the public, decisions about what message to send and where to send it are in the hands of a small group of interested scientists.
But there is also a much deeper question. If you are lost in the woods, getting found is obviously a good thing. When it comes to whether humanity should be broadcasting a message to aliens, the answer is much less clear-cut.
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Before he died, iconic physicist Stephen Hawking was outspoken about the danger of contacting aliens with superior technology. He argued that they could be malign and if given Earth’s location, might destroy humanity.
Others see no extra risk, since a truly advanced civilization would already know of our existence. And there is interest. Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner has offered $1 million for the best design of a new message and an effective way to transmit it.
To date, no international regulations govern METI, so the experiments will continue, despite concerns.
For now, intelligent aliens remain in the realm of science fiction. Books like “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu offer somber and thought-provoking perspectives on what the success of METI efforts might look like. It doesn’t end well for humanity in the books. If humans ever do make contact in real life, I hope the aliens come in peace.
Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy, University of Arizona
There’s one last place Planet Nine could be hiding
A study recently submitted to The Astronomical Journal
continues to search for the elusive Planet Nine (also called Planet X),
which is a hypothetical planet that potentially orbits in the outer
reaches of the solar system and well beyond the orbit of the dwarf
The goal of this study, which is available on the pre-print server arXiv,
was to narrow down the possible locations of Planet Nine and holds the
potential to help researchers better understand the makeup of our solar
system, along with its formation and evolutionary processes. So, what
was the motivation behind this study regarding narrowing down the
location of a potential Planet 9?
Dr. Mike Brown, who is a Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of
Astronomy at Caltech and lead author of the study, tells Universe Today,
“We are continuing to try to systematically cover all of the regions of
the sky where we predict Planet Nine to be. Using data from Pan-STARRS
allowed us to cover the largest region to date.”
Pan-STARRS, which stands for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid
Response System, is a collaborative astronomical observation system
located at Haleakala Observatory and operated by the University of
Hawai’i Institute of Astronomy. For the study, the researchers used data
from Data Release 2 (DR2) with the goal of narrowing down the possible
location of Planet Nine based on findings from past studies.
In the end, the team narrowed down possible locations of Planet Nine
by eliminating approximately 78% of possible locations that were
calculated from previous studies. Additionally, the researchers also
provided new estimates for the approximate semimajor axis (measured in
astronomical units, AU) and Earth-mass size of Planet Nine at 500 and
6.6, respectively. So, what are the most significant results from this
study, and what follow-up studies are currently being conducted or
“While I would love to say that the most significant result
was finding Planet Nine, we didn’t,” Dr. Brown tells Universe Today. “So
instead, it means that we have significantly narrowed the search area.
We’ve now surveyed approximately 80% of the regions where we think
Planet Nine might be.”
In terms of follow-up studies, Dr.
Brown tells Universe Today, “I think that the LSST is the most likely
survey to find Planet Nine. When it comes online in a year or two it
will quickly cover much of the search space and, if Planet Nine is
there, find it.”
LSST stands for Legacy Survey of Space and Time, and is an
astronomical survey currently scheduled as a 10-year program to study
the southern sky and take place at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in
Chile, which is presently under construction.
Objectives for LSST include studying identifying near-Earth asteroids
(NEAs) and small planetary bodies within our solar system, but also
include deep space studies, as well. These include investigating the
properties of dark matter and dark energy and the evolution of the Milky
Way galaxy. But what is the importance of finding Planet Nine?
Dr. Brown tells Universe Today, “This would be the 5th
largest planet of our solar system and the only one with a mass between
Earth and Uranus. Such planets are common around other stars, and we
would suddenly have a chance to study one in our own solar system.”
Scientists began hypothesizing the existence of Planet Nine shortly
after the discovery of Neptune in 1846, including an 1880 memoir
authored by D. Kirkwood and later a 1946 paper authored by American
astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, who was responsible for discovering Pluto in
More recent studies include studies from 2016 and 2017 presenting
evidence for the existence of Planet Nine, the former of which was
co-authored by Dr. Brown.
This most recent study marks the
most complete investigation of narrowing down the location of Planet
Nine, which Dr. Brown has long-believed exists, telling Universe Today,
“There are too many separate signs that Planet Nine is there. The solar
system is very difficult to understand without Planet Nine.”
He continues by telling Universe Today that “…Planet Nine explains
many things about orbits of objects in the outer solar system that would
be otherwise unexplainable and would each need some sort of separate
“The cluster of the directions of the orbits is the best know, but
there is also the large perihelion distances of many objects, existence
of highly inclined and even retrograde objects, and the high abundance
of very eccentric orbits which cross inside the orbit of Neptune. None
of these should happen in the solar system, but all are easily
explainable as an effect of Planet Nine.”
Michael E. Brown et al, A Pan-STARRS1 Search for Planet Nine, arXiv (2024). DOI: 10.48550/arxiv.2401.17977
‘October Surprise’: Russia To Launch Nukes in Space
The ‘national security threat’ announced on Wednesday is
about Russia planning to launch nuclear weapons in space, causing some
to speculate whether it’s really an election year ploy.
The panic began when House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner
(R-Ohio) asked President Biden to declassify information about a
“serious national security threat”.
Modernity.news reports: The weapon would reportedly be designed to be used to take out satellites.
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) responded by telling reporters he wanted “to assure the American people, there is no need for public alarm.”
The big, scary threat is serious business and involves a space-based nuke controlled by evil dictator Putin, but it’s also “not an immediate crisis,” according to what three members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee have told Politico.
Okay, then. Just for election season, is it?
Zero Hedge reports: “So, the question is – was this:
a) a distraction from Biden’s broken brain, or
2) a last desperate attempt to get more funding for anything-but-the-US-border, or
iii) a path to pitching Putin as the uber-bad-guy again after his interview with Tucker Carlson.”
Just by coincidence, Mike Turner recently returned from Ukraine having lobbied for billions more in weapons and aid for Zelensky’s government.
Some questioned the timing, suggesting it might all be a deep state plot to keep American voters afraid when they hit the ballot box.
Speculation will now rage as to whether this is “the event,” real or imagined, that billionaires and elitists the world over have been building underground survival bunkers in preparation for.
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